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From South Africa to the world: Amapiano goes global

by Rofhiwa Maneta

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What is amapiano? We chart the rise of the amapiano scene, from its origins in South Africa to global domination

The birth of a genre

In July 2020, a documentary called Shaya (which aims to map out the birth of amapiano and its rapid popularity as a genre) was released to a muted response. The 26-minute documentary opens with a quote from Mark Khoza (an MC, artist and associate of popular amapiano producer, Kabza De Small).

“There is a guy who would play the keyboard along to a DJ’s set. Even in the studio, he’d play the piano over the recordings. Later, someone else would come with the idea of infusing that practice with deep house. Eventually, Kabza De Small also played the same music. The genre used to be called ‘number’. But MFR Souls came up with the name ‘amapiano’ and popularized it. They are the ones who started it.”

The documentary covers much ground in the short distance it travels – interviewing other popular amapiano producers such as Jazzi Disciples, Kabza De Small, MFR Souls and the late Papers 707 (who was famed for his amapiano dance moves). It’s a necessary (if not imperfect) attempt at capturing the moment the genre finds itself in. 

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You know how hood politics go. There is a big debate about which township amapiano originated from. The truth of the matter is amapiano was born in the soil of the streets of South Africa. Therefore it belongs to all of us.

Taken from the documentary ‘Shaya!’

It’s a messy line that attempts to sanitise the politics surrounding the genre’s birth. Since its popularity in 2017, there has been some contention of when the genre was born and who exactly put its gears in motion. On one end, origins stories can and often are little more than marketing ploys – attempts by artists to cash in on the freshly hewn ground of a new genre. But, other times, the demand to be recognised ‘as the first to such and such a thing’ is a rightful claim to an unfolding history. 

What makes amapiano what it is?

Amapiano is a relatively new genre of South African music. Initially, when the genre started gaining popularity in 2017, amapiano was known for its fanciful (often minutes long piano solos). ‘Yellow, Yellow’, a 2015 release by Calvin Fallo (one of the genre’s founding figures) features a broken drum beat anchored by close to six minutes of piano riffing and screeching organs. It’s the kind of song that specifically lends itself to live performances. You can almost imagine Fallo going up and down different octaves in the dead of the night while a crowd shouts “shaya, i-number” in his direction.

In contrast, recent amapiano releases have been marked by their restraint. The emotional import of a song like ‘Amanikiniki’ (produced by the genre’s founding fathers, MFR Souls) is rooted in the call and response lyrics. Even ‘Ndofaya’, which featured on Kabza De Small’s debut album, ‘I Am The King of Amapiano’ sounds more like kwaito than anything he made three years back.

Amapiano goes global

Between 2017 and now, the genre’s popularity has moved well past South Africa’s borders. From Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music shows to global stars picking up the sound, the genre has blazed across the world

Leading this charge is DJ Maphorisa – a local figurehead in the house scene. Before he settled on amapiano, the DJ boasted production credits such as Drake’s One Dance, Major Lazer’s Particula (which features US artist Jidenna) while also producing for continental giants Wizkid and Mafikizolo). 

In 2020, Kabza De Small (who is signed to Maphorisa) released Sponono – a song which features Wizkid and Burna Boy. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Maphorisa used his continental muscle to have the two Nigerian artists (who boast a large international audience) onto the song. Similarly, local amapiano artist and recent ‘True Music In The Round: South Africa‘ headliner, Focalistic (whose music straddles the line between amapiano and rap), enlisted Davido for the remix of his 2020 hit, Ke Star.

Watch Maphorisa’s Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music South Africa Set Here

The women of amapiano

But one of the genre’s biggest international nods came in mid-2020 when Zimbabwean born artist Sha Sha (often referred to as ‘the queen of amapiano’) bagged a BET award for the best international act. Her sound, which can be categorized as equal parts amapiano and smoked-out soul, differs from Kamo Mphela (another seminal female figure in the genre). Nkulunkulu, a song by Mphela, is rooted in the genre’s earlier tradition of call and response lyrics. Featuring window-rattling log drums and subtle piano melodies has gained over a million views since dropping on 26 March. 

‘Khuza Gogo’, a song by female house DJ DBN Gogo (who recently featured in the ‘Ballantine’s Stay True Cities: South Africa’ series) has been a permanent fixture on local radio stations since its release, spawning various TikTok challenges.

These three artists (with styles that sit on opposite ends of the genres poles) represent the female musicians leading the charge to increase the genre’s popularity. Unlike house music—where female vocalists can often have their contributions understated or erased —women are rightly viewed as the bedrock of amapiano.

‘Woza’, a recent release by popular amapiano producer Mr JazziQ, is held together by the vocal contributions of Lady Du. The same can be said of Junior De Rocka’s ‘Catalia’. Even ‘iDlozi Lami’ by DJ Obza (a recent hit) is reduced to background music without the vocal contribution of Nkosazana.

Watch DBN Gogo’s System Restart set for Boiler Room here



The Future Of Amapiano

In some manner, amapiano shares the same story as gqom. The mix and match infrastructure that typified gqom’s early releases, is not dissimilar to that used by upcoming amapiano producers. Both genres carry a heavy DIY ethos. Music is produced, distributed via Whatsapp groups, bootlegged CDs and premiered in clubs. Popular Whatsapp groups such as Amapiano World, Amapiano Music and Amapiano Fan Base serve as quick, inexpensive distribution hubs to debut music from producers looking to spread their music across the length and breadth of the country. Also, without the interference of major labels, and A&Rs demands to parrot the flavour of the month, artists are free to test new ideas as and when they please. 

While gqom had it’s moment (at its peak, the genre was the subject of international fascination), the fifteen minutes ultimately ran up and the genre now enjoys a provincial popularity in Kwazulu Natal (it’s birthplace). 

Whether the same will be true of amapiano remains to be seen. 

Ballantine’s True Music x Amapiano

Ballantine’s have long been supporting South Africa’s vibrant music scene, from Amapiano to Gqom to Deep House. Since 2015 it has taken us across the country, hosting shows in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Pretoria. So grab a glass and catch all the sets back and be sure to follow our True Music Playlist as we celebrate music from SA and beyond!

Rofhiwa Maneta is a freelance arts and culture journalist from Cape Town, he has written for the Sunday Times, True Africa, Vice and The Fader.

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